The “political” scene in Iraq has been muddling through for some time now, not least because of major inconsistencies in US policy.
At the start of the war, the US made different–and largely incompatible–promises to different sectors of Iraqi society.
Iraq’s Sunni military officers were told that the US was interested in nothing more than “Saddamism without Saddam.”
Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds were told to prepare for a social revolution in Iraq: de-Baathification and the end of Sunni minority rule in Iraq.
Since those days, the Bush administration has flip-flopped on this question, twisting and turning with dramatic but totally inconsistent policies, each favored by rival Bush administration factions (for the latest salvo in that factional war, see Right Zionist Frank Gaffney‘s most recent attack on Right Arabist influence at the State Department).
Paul Bremer’s May 2003 de-Baathification order–hailed by Right Zionists–was immediately followed by Bremer’s own efforts to take it all back, culminating in the US appointment of ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi as the Iraqi Prime Minister in June 2004–a victory for Right Arabists.
Then the US sponsored elections in 2005–celebrated by Right Zionists–but continued, under Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, to seek reconciliation with various elements of the Sunni resistance, as suggested by Right Arabists.
After all this wavering and waffling, it was beginning to look like the US might simply stall indefinitely on these questions, keeping all parties in Iraq “on their toes” through policies designed to keep everyone guessing about US intentions.
That trend may continue, but there have been some signs in recent days that the US may be pressed to come clean on the old, central political issue of Sunni minority rule.
Bring Back the Baath
On the Sunni side, there was the extraordinarily clear and simple statement by a group of Sunni tribal leaders: Bring Back Saddam Hussein.
The news came in a September 3, 2006 Washington Post article entitled, “A Demand for Hussein’s Release,”
A coalition of 300 Iraqi tribal leaders on Saturday demanded the release of Saddam Hussein so he could reclaim the presidency and also called for armed resistance against U.S.-led forces.
The clan chieftains, most of them Sunni Arabs, included the head of the 1.5 million-member al-Obeidi tribe, said they planned to hold rallies in Sunni cities throughout the country to insist that Hussein be freed and that the charges against him and his co-defendants be dropped.
These are hardly the first signs of Sunni Arab resistance to US policy. That is not the novelty. What is striking about the statement is the simplicity of the demand: let’s go right back to SQUARE ONE.
Nothing subtle here like support for an ex-Baathist like Allawi. Not Saddamism without Saddam. Nope. Saddam Hussein himself.
Sistani: Can You Hear Me Now?
At roughly the same time, there have been some rumblings from Grand Ayatollah Sistani–the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq.
On the one hand, there is the widely circulated September 3, 2006 report in the Telegraph that Sistani is essentially quitting the political front.
“I will not be a political leader any more,” he told aides. “I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters.”…
Asked whether Ayatollah al-Sistani could prevent a civil war, Mr al-Jaberi replied: “Honestly, I think not. He is very angry, very disappointed.”
He said a series of snubs had contributed to Ayatollah al-Sistani’s decision. “He asked the politicians to ask the Americans to make a timetable for leaving but they disappointed him,” he said. “After the war, the politicians were visiting him every month. If they wanted to do something, they visited him. But no one has visited him for two or three months. He is very angry that this is happening now. He sees this as very bad.”
The guilt-tripping about how nobody comes to visit anymore seems to have worked wonders: the same Washington Post article that reported on the “Free Saddam” confab also reported that Sistani had a special visitor:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the southern city of Najaf on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating security situation with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq. Sistani’s office said in a statement after the meeting that he supported Maliki’s 28-step national reconciliation plan and called on the government to quickly reduce violence in the country before other groups, such as armed militias, fill the void.
If folks at the Telegraph thought that Sistani’s complaint that nobody comes to visit made him sound like he was settling in for life as a retired grandparent, Sunni political leaders in Iraq were not so sure.
According to an Associated Press report, Maliki’s visit to Sistani prompted complaints from Sunni MP Saleh al-Mutlaq:
Al-Mutlaq… unleashed a barrage of criticism against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s national unity government, saying it should not be taking its cue from the top Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani…
“…I say we don’t need to visit anyone as a government, an independent government that should be making its decisions on its own, not based on (directions) from a religious authority.”
Maliki went to see the Ayatollah with recent “coup” rumors on his mind.
Back in late July 2006, reports of such a coup hit the US media. An article in the Washington Post quoted concerned Shiite politicians:
Hadi al-Amiri, a member of parliament from Iraq’s most powerful political party, said in a speech in the holy city of Najaf that “some tongues” were talking about toppling Maliki’s Shiite-led government and replacing it with a “national salvation government, which we call a military coup government”…
A new government would mean “canceling the constitution, canceling the results of the elections and going back to square one . . . and we will not accept that,” he said.
Amiri is also a top official in the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is the leading member of a coalition of Shiite political parties governing Iraq.
So, it seems, did Prime Minister Maliki.
According to at least one report on Arab media coverage of the meeting, Maliki got nod he was looking for from Sistani:
In a press conference following the meeting, Maliki told journalists that ‘Sistani stands as a support for the government,’ emphasizing that the government was able to solve the problems in the country and not ‘a salvation government’ which ‘enemies of the political process’ call for.
And, not coincidentally, Sistani got confirmation that Maliki would resist calls to dump Sistani’s closest ally in the government, Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.
Far from stepping back from the “political front,” Sistani may actually be stepping up.
Amidst all the political alternation of Bush administration policy and the recent chatter about US support for a coup, Sistani seems ready to press the Bush administration for some clarity, especially with reports in the news that James Baker–Secretary of State during the administration of George HW Bush and a leading Right Arabist critic of Shiite empowerment–was in Iraq meeting with Sunni leaders.
Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s Shiite Deputy President, made a “private visit” to Washington to meet with administration figures including Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
According to a Jackson Diehl column in the Washington Post–“Not Wanted: An Exit Strategy“–Mahdi was sent to Washington on behalf of Sistani to ask, amidst all the factionalism and waffling in the Bush administration, if the US was prepared to back Shiite rule or support an anti-Shiite coup:
[Mahdi] was here to deliver a message, and ask a question, on behalf of Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who remains Iraq’s single most influential figure — and the linchpin of the past 40 months of political reconstruction. Sistani’s message to Bush, Mahdi told a group of reporters I joined last week, was that “Iraqis are sticking to the principles of the constitution and democracy.” But the ayatollah wanted to know if the United States is still on board as well.
“It’s a critical moment. We want to be sure that we understand perfectly what’s going on, and what is the real strategy of the United States in Iraq,” Mahdi said. “We read in the press about different perspectives and attitudes. That’s why we want to be clear — whether there is a Plan B.”
According to a report in the Financial Times (Guy Dinmore, “Bush Holds to Rhetoric of No Appeasement As Critics Fred Over Failures,” September 4, 2006; subscribers only), Mahdi got something like an answer from Washington:
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s vice-president, said he came to Washington last week to ask Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, the vice-president, what their “real strategy” was in Iraq, whether there really was a “plan B” as talked about in the media – all in the context of US domestic politics and the election build-up. In reply, he was told the Bush team would hold “steady”.
Mr Abdul-Mahdi also carried an unusual verbal message to the White House from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia Muslim cleric. The spiritual leader expressed Iraqis’ commitment to democracy and their constitution and called on “others” to stick to those principles.
A regional expert who advises the White House said Mr Abdul-Mahdi came to Washington because the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, was losing its trust in Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to Baghdad.
Was Sistani comforted to know that the Bush administration would hold “steady”? In the context of all the administation’s zigzag approach to Iraqi politics, what would it even mean to hold “steady”?
How long can the Bush administration delay the day of political reckoning with a “steady” policy of oscillation and vacillation?
Sistani, for one, seems ready for a reckoning.